Australia was a completely unknown quantity to Alex Semkin in 2017 when he started rebuilding the university student ministry in Moscow. Now, the former government worker feels no one else in the world cares about him and his attempts to revive this ministry – except Australians.
Brought to Sydney on a two-year apprenticeship by the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES), a university-based ministry, Semkin shakes his head at the extraordinary way he was brought to a country he and his wife Irina find incredibly beautiful.
“It was very unexpected because, just a few years ago, we didn’t realise that there is any country like Australia. It was a blind territory on our map – what is Australia, where is it?” he says in wonder.
For Howard Spencer, director of AFES International Ministries, Russia was equally off his radar in considering who to support to come from overseas and be part of the AFES staff team.
“We didn’t even mean to care for them, but it just happened somehow! God just did it. I still think ‘How did this get started, how did we end up here so quickly?’” comments Spencer.
AFES is an evangelical Christian parachurch organisation that aims to encourage university students to follow Jesus. It has about 70 to 80 apprentices on campus each year, and also tries to identify gifted people who can work in the national office and be trained in Christian administration.
“Christian organisations are all looking for administrators and accountants and people who are good at the processes,” Spencer explains.
“They may not have ministry skills, but they’re driven by that ministry heart.
“We’ve done that locally for many years, and this year we’ve got Alex and Bostjan Cifer – from the Slovene Student ministry Zvesh.”
The way Russia and Australia were brought together has God’s handprints all over it. In 2017, Semkin took on the challenge of rebuilding CCX – the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students group (IFES) in Moscow – after it had stopped for many years.
It was not an easy decision because he had the responsibility of caring for his family and held a secure full-time job with the government.
“Can you imagine that some people from Australia visited Moscow and they found me in some strange way?” – Alex Semkin
“I prayed and I thought about it and I just understood that ‘who else is going to do this?’” explains Semkin. “I was a part of this ministry when I was at university. I have a passion to be with students, to lead some young Bible study groups – so I said ‘Yes’.”
“It was very good time – it was a big challenge, as well, because you can imagine that there was no IFES student activity for many years.
“Nobody remembers this ministry and it was very big, big job to reconnect with graduates, reconnect with friends and to organise sustainable meetings and to invite people.”
Semkin put together a new team who restored connections with CCX Moscow graduates, started new Bible study groups and organised events and training for students. Today, there is a sustainable group of Christian students who meet regularly in Moscow.
Nationwide, its general secretary Andrei Kolegov has built the Russian movement almost from scratch during the past seven years. There are groups in six cities and about 12 staff workers.
Into this fledgling CCX organisation, which lacked structure and confidence – and battled financial difficulties – came a few elderly men on a mission trip from Brisbane.
“Can you imagine that some people from Australia visited Moscow and they found me in some strange way?
“I helped them because they had some kind of mission trip and they wanted to share with people the gospel and get a chance to speak with students … I organised some meetings for them,” says Semkin.
“I said ‘Well, we’d better talk to the treasurer for the whole of IFES – he’s in the lunch queue down here!’” – Howard Spencer
In response, the Brisbane group invited Semkin to come to the AFES conference – National Training Event (NTE) – in Canberra in December 2018.
“I have not heard about any AFES conference in my life. What does this look like? I don’t know how I can go there. It was very challenging to find resources for this, but these people took care of it. They have provided me and my general secretary Andrei everything and we just came.”
According to Spencer, this is where God again intervened because, at the same time, Kolegov was thoroughly discouraged and ready to give up the student ministry.
“Andrei said when he came to NTE he was at the point where he was about to resign because it was all just too hard. He was getting no support,” reveals Spencer.
“When he was here in Australia he got notice from IFES that the funding that all came from Europe had finished. There was no more money to pay these 12 staff.
“He said ‘I can’t even think what to do because they need to be paid before Christmas and they’ve just told me now they’re not going to give me any money.’”
“I said ‘Well, we’d better talk to the treasurer for the whole of IFES – he’s in the lunch queue!’
“God had arranged for the first time ever for Nick Addo – who is the head of finance for the whole of the world for IFES – and his wife [to attend].
“I’d invited them to NTE a number of times and this happened to be the first time [they’d come].
“He was in the queue and, by the next morning, Nick had got it sorted out and there was money sent.
“And it was like ‘whoa, God!’ It was just too amazing. Andrei couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it, and Nick couldn’t believe it either.”
The Russian duo were encouraged and heartened by seeing AFES’s vision and mission expounded continually – evangelise, encourage, train, send, to proclaim Jesus Christ on university campuses and present everyone mature in Christ.
So when offered a two-year AFES apprenticeship, Semkin decided to resign from his job in Moscow and come to train in Australia. He aims to build and strengthen the Russian student ministry through establishing a sustainable CCX structure.
“Three days a week I’m at the national office doing some administrative work and just helping Howard, so it’s time for me to understand the structure of this organisation because in Russia we’re underground – we don’t have any organisation,” he explains.
“It’s very difficult for people because they want to be an organisation that can pay taxes and some pensions and superannuation, but we can’t do that; we don’t have anything.
“It is a time for me to understand how it works and how it should work.
“Two days a week, I am at UNSW campus [Sydney] so it’s a good time to be with students and a lot of activity.
“At this stage, I’m not really involved in preaching or saying something; I’m just watching at this stage. But there’s a lot of opportunities there – what we don’t have in Russia – it is all open, full freedom.”
“After this party she posted on Instagram that it was probably the best evening in her life. So it was very, very encouraging.” – Alex Semkin
Semkin explains that CCX is not allowed to go into university campuses in Russia. Despite this, it has a Bible study group that meets on one university campus, as well as one that meets in a cafe.
For the rest, they invite students to events.
“For example, on St Valentine’s Day we organised a party. We had a lot of students and non-believers come. We had a talk about different types of love and the most important love is love of God and salvation in Christ.”
“One of [the guests] was this girl with blue hair and very strange clothes. We didn’t understand [whether] she likes it or she doesn’t … but after this party she posted on Instagram that it was probably the best evening in her life. So it was very, very encouraging.”
The group that meets at a Moscow art university did have a Bible study group back in the 1960s, a rare thing during the Soviet Union era.
“You can imagine it was 50 years ago, it was Soviet time and no Christians are allowed in university. If you were Christian, you could not go to university in Soviet Union.”
“It was a strategy of the government to show people that if you’re Christian you will lose all the preferences, to show that it is good not to be a Christian.”
“But some of them entered this university and it was the time when if you confessed your faith you can go to prison – it was very, very easy to go to prison. Anyway, they were gathered in this university and prayed for each other – and many, many years after that there’s a group of Christians in this university … it is amazing.”
As well as building an administrative system, Semkin says he wants to try to attract more students to their activities and to create new ways of preaching the gospel.
“I think it is very important to have good teams of leaders. I want to train the leaders after my return that they could be more experienced in ministry and just to have some influence on their non-believer friends,” he concludes.
Semkin prays his time with AFES will give him ideas and tools to build a sustainable administration base to enable the CCX ministry to grow into a strong Russian student movement.
“I pray for wisdom that some things I observe in Australia might be adaptable to the Russian context and that the kingdom of God might grow into a thriving and viable university student movement in the future,” he says.